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Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) : May we have a short statement early next week on the position of British citizens still in China? I have a constituent, Miss Elaine Sweeney, of Humberstone in Leicester, who is in Chengdu in Situhan province. I am grateful to the Foreign Office for the steps that it has taken to ascertain her whereabouts. She telephoned her mother this morning.
I am concerned about the arrangements that are to be made by the Foreign Office for the return of British citizens. Today I spoke to five Foreign Office officials to obtain confirmation of the arrangements for her return, but they were not in a position to tell me what was to happen. On the World Service this morning, I heard that the American Government had taken some responsibility for British citizens in that province. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be more appropriate for the Foreign Secretary to write to hon. Members with an interest in this matter to tell them when another Government are involved and to ascertain, as a matter of urgency, what arrangements can be made for the return of those British citizens?
Mr. Wakeham : The whole House will want to pay a warm tribute to the work being carried out by our ambassador and the staff of the British embassy in China, who are dealing with some very difficult problems in trying conditions, as are many journalists and reporters who are seeking to do their job there as well. I do not want to say anything other than that. However, I can say to the hon. Gentleman that the young lady about whom he is concerned is well and is booked on an aeroplane to leave the country. I hope that that is satisfactory.
Points of Order
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have heard several requests for a debate about a dog registration scheme. May I draw your attention to the fact that an amendment has been tabled to the Local Government and Housing Bill, to require a dog registration scheme to be instituted by the Minister for
Column 379Local Government by means of a statutory instrument, with a requirement for an explanation if the Minister does not provide such a scheme? In view of the widespread concern, especially after the reports of rottweilers attacking young children and old women, it would be helpful to the House if you gave careful consideration to the request for a debate in examining the selection for amendments on either Tuesday or Wednesday, when the Bill will be considered. It would be extremely helpful if you would bear the request in mind, with a view to making a selection that includes that amendment.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you to look at the two most recent answers to me from the Minister for Local Government about the poll tax? He begins by saying that the Government are not introducing a poll tax. You will recall that you recently described it as a poll tax yourself. May I therefore ask you to look at that? We need to have an assurance that the Government will not use that as an excuse to refuse to answer such questions.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
[Relevant documents : First Report from the Defence Committee of Session 1988-89 on the Future of the Brigade of Gurkhas (HC 68) and the Government's Reply thereto (Cm.700).]
Mr. Speaker : Before I call on the Front Bench I must point out that many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen wish to participate in this debate. I propose to put a limit on speeches of 10 minutes between 7 pm and 9 pm, but as we have had an early start, I hope that it may be possible to relax that limit. In fairness to all, I hope that those called before 7 pm will bear that limit broadly in mind.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : This year, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of NATO. During the past four decades, the collective strength and efforts of the Alliance have maintained peace in Europe in the face of the overwhelming military power of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. This year has also seen the 10th anniversary of a Conservative Government, who have not only provided this country with secure defences, but have also played a full part in NATO's search for dialogue and co-operation in East-West relations. Thankfully, NATO's approach has now evoked a response from the Soviets.
There are welcome signs now that the Soviet leadership is moving away from its past exaggerated reliance on aggressive military power as the basis of the Soviet Union's status as a world power. We are determined to encourage and build on this new mood, but we should not be blind to the massive military strength that the Warsaw pact still retains. The recent promises of reductions in its forces are a step in the right direction, but even after the reductions announced last December are implemented, the Warsaw pact will still outnumber the West by 2.4 : 1 in tanks and artillery in Europe and by 1.8 : 1 in combat aircraft. That is a huge imbalance which is inconsistent with the requirements of any "defensive doctrine".
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan) : Before the Minister leaves that point, will he tell us the ratios that normal military strategy requires to make no offensive attack worth while? Are we not talking about ratios of about 3 : 1 at least before commanders would consider that they had sufficient advantage to guarantee an offensive attack any chance of success?
Mr. Hamilton : I have certainly not heard the figure. The thing that matters is the concentration of forces for an offensive attack. That is the significant matter, and that is one of the factors that will have to be considered in the CFE talks. We must ensure that the forces that we are left with are dispersed widely enough to prevent a concentrated attack--the one thing that would undermine the security of the West.
If we are to be certain of preserving our freedom and security, NATO needs collectively to remain able to show the Warsaw pact that it can gain no possible advantage by trying to pursue its objectives by the use of military force in Europe. The government are not prepared to abandon the policies that have kept the peace for so long. We will not abandon the nuclear element of Western defence,
Column 381which history has shown is the only way in which the aim of preventing all forms of war in Europe--conventional and nuclear--can be achieved, and which is accepted by all members of the Alliance. The Labour party wants to throw away the policy or flexible response which has ensured that Soviet leaders have never felt tempted to use their massive military strength against a NATO country.
Our deterrent policy ensures that any aggression would involve the prospect of unacceptable losses, dispropor-tionate to any conceivable gain. That involves having available to the Alliance a range of options so that a potential enemy is faced with a series of possibilities that cannot be predicted with certainty. Creating uncertainty in the minds of our potential enemies about how, precisely, the West would respond to aggression is one thing. Creating uncertainty in the minds of our allies about our commitment to the agreed policies of the Alliance is another. With this Government, our allies can be certain that the United Kingdom will continue to provide the full range of effective forces and a full contribution to the mutual commitments of NATO membership that are necessary for our defence and that of our allies.
The Army plays a crucial part in this country's commitment to NATO's common defence, principally through its role in the defence of Europe's central region. The centrepiece of this contribution is the British Army of the Rhine, which provides armour, infantry, artillery and air defence units--as well as regiments of Lance missiles and artillery, which are capable of firing nuclear warheads--as part of NATO's Northern Army Group. In war, it would form a fully integrated part of the forces available to NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe to carry out NATO's agreed strategy of forward defence and flexible response.
Over the past 10 years the Government have spent about £20 billion more on our conventional forces than would have been spent if spending had continued at the 1978-79 level--its level under the last Labour Government. Because of that we have been able to provide the forces and the equipment necessary to maintain a full contribution to this strategy, and I shall today describe some of the ways in which we shall ensure that the Army can continue to play a full part.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : As a tank-crew national service man in the British Army of the Rhine--possibly it is a residual interest--may I ask the Minister whether the complaints about BAOR accommodation that some of us have heard are founded? Some of the SS barracks which were very good when I was a national service man must surely be deteriorating.
Mr. Hamilton : I did not receive many complaints about Army barracks when I visited the Rhine Army recently. We are constantly spending money on updating and improving them, and there is no question of their being left in their pre-war state. Even though some of the accommodation is not up to the standard that we would like, we find money for improvements whenever we can.
Over this period the capability of BAOR has been increased considerably, and we are continuing to provide for extensive improvements in each of the key areas of firepower, mobility and protection.
Column 382During the past year, a sixth regiment of Challenger 1 tanks has been introduced. A seventh regiment is on order, and in December last year we decided that all Challenger tanks will be retrofitted with the new Charm 120 mm main armament. The first regiment will be equipped in the early 1990s. We also intend to replace the Chieftain tank as soon as possible, and as my right hon. Friend announced on 20 December, we have given Vickers Defence Systems the opportunity to show that it can deliver Challenger 2 to specification, time and cost. The demonstration phase is due to end in September 1990. Vickers must also show that it is able to develop improved ammunition for the tank's main armament so that it can match the technical developments of the future. We also placed an order in January this year for a further batch of Challenger armoured repair and recovery vehicles which will significantly enhance the combat effectiveness of our armoured forces.
The multiple-launch rocket system will start to be deployed from next year. Three regiments' worth have been ordered. This system will increase the range and potency of the Royal Artillery, initially with a rocket which will dispense bomblets designed to attack personnel and lightly armoured targets. MLRS2, which will dispense anti-tank mines, is under consideration for the mid-1990s, and MLRS3, which will be designed to dispense terminally guided anti-armour munitions, is being developed as a multnational collaborative venture for the latter part of the 1990s. Phoenix, a remotely piloted vehicle which is nearing the end of development, will provide improved targeting information.
A new 155 mm self-propelled howitzer, due to enter service from the early 1990s to replace the Abbot self-propelled howitzer and some of our older M109 systems, will not only provide a significant improvement in the artillery's firepower but should also provide excellent value for money for the taxpayer. A decision on this will be made shortly.
We have continued to improve the equipment of the infantryman. The LAW80 man-portable anti-tank weapon has been in service since January last year. Some 90,000 SA80 rifles are now in service in two versions, the individual weapon and the light support weapon. The weapon is generally well liked and has significantly increased infantry firepower. It is much more accurate than its predecessor, it allows more ammunition to be carried for the same weight, it is more compact, and it has a higher rate of fire.
A development contract was awarded in September last year for the important TRIGAT missile project. This programme, on which we are collaborating with France and West Germany, is aimed at replacing our current anti-tank missiles with more powerful third-generation systems in the mid to late 1990s.
Deliveries of the Warrior mechanised combat vehicle, armed with the 30 mm Rarden cannon, continue. Two battalions are now complete, and two are in the process of receiving their new vehicles. In all, we have ordered 13 battalions' worth of the armoured personnel carrier version. Other versions will carry out more specialised tasks. Our initial impressions of this British-designed and built vehicle are very encouraging and it will enable the infantry to support armoured units more closely. Protection for non- armoured infantry battalions with a
Column 383NATO role has also been greatly improved, now that deliveries of the Saxon wheeled armoured personnel carrier are complete. Our development of the use of helicopters on the battlefield continues. Our studies have shown that both tanks and helicopters armed with anti-tank missiles have an essential role on the battlefield. Although both can destroy armour, the greater range and mobility of the attack helicopter makes it more suitable for reserve operations and swift counter- attacks. Helicopters are, however, relatively vulnerable to enemy fire and cannot provide the same ability as the tank to hold ground for long periods, or provide firepower support for dismounted infantry.
We are still considering the next generation of attack helicopter for the Army, and we have continued to improve the TOW missile on the Lynx anti- tank helicopter and to develop the ability of the helicopter to fight at night using thermal imaging and image intensification equipment.
The conversion of 24 Brigade to the air-mobile role began in April last year. An Army Air Corps regiment, equipped with anti-tank and utility Lynx and Gazelle helicopters, will be part of the brigade and will begin to form at Dishforth this year. Further support for the brigade in the short term will be provided by RAF Chinook and Puma helicopters.
To strengthen the army's ability to defend itself against the air threat on the future battlefield, we intend to replace the current Rapier system from the mid-1990s with the new, advanced Rapier 2000, which is now under development. We have also decided to form a third air defence regiment armed with the new high-velocity missile currently being developed by Short Brothers.
Mr. Dalyell : Has the Minister read the interesting autobiography by his right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), in which he asserts that the Ministry of Defence was really completely unconcerned about the industrial future of Westland? I do not think that I distort it. Can we have the assurance that the Ministry of Defence is now extremely concerned about the industrial future of Westland and will gear its requirements to that industrial future?
Mr. Hamilton : It would be more accurate to say that the Ministry of Defence is most concerned about getting value for taxpayers' money. If, at the same time we can serve the British industry, that is a bonus. However, I do not believe that we are here exclusively to maintain any part of British industry. It would be a mistake for British defence manufacturers to work on that assumption. When it comes to helicopters, one of the problems is that we do not have a continuing demand for them and, therefore, Westland, if it is to have a good future, must look for export orders, as well as relying on the Ministry of Defence for orders.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) : Will my hon. and gallant Friend clarify in greater detail the Government's policy on helicopter procurement? When the Government are considering the anti-armour role are they looking at aircraft other than the light attack helicopter, such as the Apache and the PAH2? On the question of the transport role for the brigade at Catterick,
Column 384is my hon. Friend considering aircraft other than the EH101 to provide troop lift in the longer term, or is the EH101 to be the aircraft to be bought?
Mr. Hamilton : When it comes to the light attack helicopter, we are indeed looking at alternatives, and the Apache is one that is under consideration. However, we must bear in mind that that is a fantastically expensive aircraft. I am sure that our consideration will be influenced by the cost of it.
As my hon. Friend knows, the difficulty with the EH101 is that although we have not reached anything like the position of having the aircraft, it is the only aircraft even in plan, of its size. Therefore, when considering carrying ability, we would have to think probably in terms of quite a different size of aircraft, if we were not to have the EH101. Certainly, our minds are open on that, too. We are hoping that the development of that aircraft will move ahead, but there are difficulties with it at present.
Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West) : My hon. Friend made the point, with which I am sure we would all agree, that it is incumbent on any company, including obviously, Westland, to look for export orders. However, are we not truly in a chicken and egg situation, because export orders are bound to depend on the home Government being prepared to place their faith in the manufacturer and live up to the expectations that they have accorded a company in terms of placing firm orders? Until those firm orders are placed, it is almost impossible for any manufacturer, however good its product may be, to go out into the field and say, "We have a good product," because the first question that it will be asked is, "If it is so good, why have not your Government bought it?" Mr. Hamilton : I take that point, but I believe that my hon. Friend would also accept that one of the advantages of the link that Westland has with Sikorsky is that it has a proven aircraft that it can manufacture under licence from Sikorsky. One would hope that that would improve its export opportunities. The role that the Army fulfils at home and abroad is to protect the people of this country and our allies, and to defend the way of life that we enjoy in the West. The skill and professionalism with which the Army carries out that task is worthy of the very highest praise, and is something that impresses me at each unit and exercise that I visit.
In the United Kingdom, the Army is, of course, deployed in Northern Ireland to support the RUC in combating the men of violence, whose aim is to kill and to destroy our way of life.
At present, there are 19 major Army units in Northern Ireland, of which nine are battalions of the UDR, which carry out their task with the utmost professionalism and dedication. There was one major change in 1988--the creation of Headquarters, 3 Infantry Brigade, at Armagh which now directs Army operations in the border area and allows the other two brigade headquarters to concentrate on supporting the RUC in other areas where there is a high level of terrorist activity. Service men face risks both on and off duty in Northern Ireland. Regrettably during 1988 a naval recruiting officer and 33 regular army and UDR soldiers, most of whom were off duty, were murdered by terrorists, and 229 injured. So far this year six soldiers have been murdered and 73 wounded. The callous attitude of the IRA was typified last year by the murder of six off-duty soldiers who
Column 385were taking part in the Lisburn fun run in June, to raise money for charity, and an off-duty UDR soldier was shot down in front of his wife and children while they were on a family shopping trip. Nor is this campaign of murder confined to Northern Ireland, as a number of incidents both in Europe and on the mainland of Great Britain since the last Army debate have shown. In Europe, one soldier and three RAF men were murdered last year in terrorist attacks. One soldier was killed in the bombing at Mill Hill. Thankfully, timely action by the security forces prevented the horrific carnage that the terrorists hoped to achieve at Tern Hill and in Gibraltar. I can assure the House that this Government take very seriously the need to maintain and, where possible, enhance the security of the Armed Forces and we shall continue to be vigilant.
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East) : Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to congratulate the American ambassador Mr. Catto on his condemnation of the IRA and the clear message that he sent back to the United States not to support Noraid and help those murderers?
Mr. Hamilton : I shall certainly do as my hon. Friend asks. There has been encouraging support both from the Reagan Administration and, subsequently, the new Administration in condemning the activities of Noraid and in making the point to the American people that they are supporting a terrorist organisation and that nothing is served by doing that.
The resurgence of terrorist activity in 1988 has highlighted once again the outstanding dedication and courage of our service men and women in the face of dangerous and testing circumstances. There are no short-term solutions and the fight against terrorism will be a long one. However, last year the Army, with the assistance of both the Royal Navy and the RAF, achieved a number of notable successes in support of the RUC. More than 500 weapons, 100,000 rounds of ammunition and nine tonnes of explosives were seized by the security forces in 1988. Some 205 bombs were made safe through the extraordinary bravery and skill of our bomb disposal teams. There can be no doubt that those achievements have saved the lives of many civilians and service men who would otherwise have been added to the number already murdered by the terrorists.
In their futile campaign of murder, the terrorists have also brought imprisonment and death upon themselves. In Northern Ireland 127 people were convicted last year of serious terrorist offences. In addition, eight terrorists in Northern Ireland paid for their murderous activities with their lives--five when they were intercepted in the act by the security forces and three who killed themselves with their own bombs. Another terrorist was killed in February this year by a bomb that he was attempting to attach to a former workmate's car.
Those deaths, and the repeated murder of civilians by terrorists in Northern Ireland, illustrate all too clearly the bankruptcy of the terrorists who, after 20 years, have nothing constructive to offer, even to those from both communities whom they falsely claim to represent. The men of violence scar many lives with tragedy, not only those they murder and maim, but the families of their victims. They offer nothing but destruction and despair to
Column 386the communities of Northern Ireland. No one has the right in a democratic society to put aside the law or to use murder when they fail with the ballot box.
It is regrettable that it is clear that the IRA still retains large quantities of sophisticated arms and ammunition, and still intends to carry out a major campaign of violence and intimidation. As long as is necessary, therefore, the Army will continue to play its part in the vital task of maintaining the rule of law. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are keen to have the soldiers off the streets again ; it is only the terrorists who keep them there.
I come to other matters and to other ways in which the Army is planning to meet the changing circumstances of the future.
Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : I am not arguing with the Minister in any way over his remarks about terrorism, but before making those remarks he said that the role of the Army was to defend our way of life. Will he define that more clearly? What does he mean by "our way of life"? If he means the right to have free elections, to have freedom of speech, the right to demonstrate, the right to have a free press, to have free trade unions which have the right to strike, to have control over the armed forces and the police by the civil authorities and so on, I would have no argument with him. The Prime Minister, however, tends to talk about freedom as though it meant freedom for the capitalist system. For her, apparently, it means nothing else. Certain people in Europe are simply putting forward a social document which seems to be hardly Socialist in character. But the Prime Minister gets all upset and says, "We do not want that Socialism here".
Will the Minister define precisely what "our way of life" means to the Government, especially as the Tories seem to be making it almost impossible for workers to take strike action at any time and under any circumstances?
Mr. Hamilton : I should have thought that the main freedom being defended by the armed forces of the nation was the freedom to elect the Government that the people want. If life is as abhorrent to people as the hon. Gentleman makes out, they will decide that it is time for a change of Government. I do not see that as being remotely likely. Indeed, if the Labour party continues to be seen to support continual obstructive strikes across the country, the chances of us remaining in power indefinitely are very good indeed.
As the House will be aware, the Secretary of State announced on 22 May the Government's plans for the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas. Those plans make it clear that, despite the loss of their current main role in Hong Kong in 1997, there is a worthwhile and viable
Column 387future for these fine fighting men in the British Army, based on a viable brigade structure that would comprise about 4,000 personnel, serving in discrete units which will preserve their distinctive identity and traditions.
It is clear from some of the reactions to my right hon. Friend's announcement that a number of people have missed the point that we are talking about a decision which will not have full effect for another eight years. There will be no reductions in numbers overnight. Indeed, the earliest that any changes could start to be made is in 1992, and it will not be necessary to take decisions about that until well into next year.
The House will recognise that it would be neither prudent nor practicable to be categoric at this stage about the precise number of troops that will be in the brigade after 1997 or, as so much will depend on circumstances at the time, their exact roles or deployments. The Government have, however, given a clear demonstration of their commitment to the Gurkhas by giving them such an assurance about their future so far ahead.
We have also made it clear that a brigade of about 4,000 is open to review in the light of circumstances, including whether the Gurkhas could help to overcome any more general manpower shortages in the Army resulting from adverse demographic trends. When the first decisions on numbers become necessary, we should also be much clearer about the precise effects that demographic changes will have on the Army as a whole.
The Government believe it would be wrong to see the retention of the Gurkhas purely as a solution for demographic problems, with the implication that, if those problems disappear, so will the Gurkhas. The Government's plans are founded on the assumption that, regardless of demographly, we shall, on the basis of the information available at present, wish to retain a significant Gurkha force with roles within the mainstream of the Army's defence commitments. It is on that assumption that the figure of about 4,000 announced by right hon. Friend is based.
Mr. O'Neill : I am not sure whether the House should welcome what the Minister said about the Gurkhas. Is he in any way moving away from the Secretary of State's statement of 28 May, or is he merely dressing it up in a different form?
Mr. Hamilton : I am merely elaborating on my right hon. Friend's statement. He said that there would be about 4,000 in the Brigade of Gurkhas and that is what I am saying. I am also saying, as has my right hon. Friend, that we will look at whether any extra people, above the 4,000 will be needed in terms of the demographic trends. All the signs show that they will be.
Column 388much higher level of strength than a British battalion over here. We reduced the number of companies from four to three purely because those in Hong Kong have much higher demands placed upon them. But of course, the House would expect me to say all this. So perhaps I could quote from a letter to the The Times published on 31 May from Field Marshal Lord Bramall, who as well as being a distinguished former Chief of the Defence Staff is President of the Gurkha Association. In it he said :
"The Government's statement was a positive, helpful and sensible one. In the place of uncertainty the Government was planning firmly for the Brigade of Gurkhas to have a worthwhile and viable role after 1997, and to do so at a basic strength of a four-battalion group, instead of the existing five, and with all the Gurkha regiments intact."
He went on :
"I believe the Government has kept faith with the hillmen of Nepal who, for over 170 years, have rallied to the support of this country, however adverse the circumstances or gloomy the forecasts ; and who, in large numbers, have laid down their lives with the utmost gallantry for our security and our future."
There is little further that I can add other than warmly to endorse that eloquent tribute to the Gurkhas. The Gurkhas are rightly renowned for their traditional infantry skills, but they are also very adaptable. They have an assured future as part of the British Army and I am sure that they will meet every new challenge that they will have to face in the future.
I have mentioned the potential effects of demographic changes, and I would like to dwell a little on this problem, which the Army, in common with all large employers will increasingly have to face. The Army is a very major employer of young people, recruiting over 20,000 each year. In future, the Army will be competing for a sizeable share of a reducing resource at a time when employment prospects for young people are forecast to expand. We expect that by 1994 the number of young men aged between 15 and 19 will reduce by some 20 per cent. In response to this problem the Army commissioned a major study into the problems of Army manpower supply in the years ahead known as MARILYN. I have today placed an abridged version of this report in the Library of the House. The study explores a range of possibilities and will underpin much of our future work on this subject. It is not itself a statement of Government policy and not all the proposals identified will necessarily be implemented.
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : Why was not the abridged version of the report placed in the Library before today to give hon. Members the opportunity to look at it, consider its terms and, I hope, make rather more constructive contributions to today's debate?
Mr. Hamilton : I apologise to the hon. and learned Gentleman if he has not had enough time to look at the report. There was some work to do on abridging the original version, and we wanted to get the report into the Library before the debate took place. I am sorry that that could not have been done earlier.
We are now aiming to tackle the problem on two broad fronts--by improving recruitment and retention. Retention is important in providing continuity of experience and expertise, and in ensuring that we get the best return possible on our recruiting and training investment. Officer premature voluntary release, although more or less stable over the last two years or so, is running at about 650 a year, and soldier PVR is now about 3 per cent. These figures certainly do not amount to a stampede but they are higher than we should like.
Towards the end of last year, therefore, we provided around £1 million extra for the Army recruitment budget, with the aim of carrying out a couple of pilot television advertising campaigns in the regions. Those have proved very successful, increasing inquiries by 150 per cent. in those areas where the commercial was run. In March this year we launched a major television campaign, the first for eight years. Extra funding of almost £5 million will be provided to the recruiters this year, which will be spent on more television and other advertising as well as an up-to-date management information system to ensure that our efforts are properly and effectively targeted.
We have also looked closely at the way in which the Army runs its recruitment effort to remove unnecessary wastage and to encourage a more flexible and imaginative approach. For example, we shall be looking to boost officer entry by encouraging late entrants and reinstating reservists in specialist areas.
With soldier recruitment, I know that there has been speculation about whether we are planning to reduce our entry standards. In previous years we have been able to be very selective and take only the best--those who considerably exceeded our minimum requirements. We shall no longer have that luxury and so we are intending to spend more time in the early stages of training. We have, for example, instituted a physical development course for those who fail the entry fitness test. Over 250 have attended the course since last August, and most have passed into basic training. It is interesting to note that their wastage rate has been no higher than other recruits. We need to turn as many inquirers as possible into applicants and as many applicants as possible into trained recruits. Everyone in the chain of command is being made aware of the problem and the need for them to make a personal contribution to reducing wastage and improving retention.
It is clearly important that we have a remuneration package which enables us to attract and retain the officers and soldiers that we need, but people do not leave the Army solely because of pay. Job satisfaction, worries about a second career, family pressures and a number of other factors play a part. I can assure thae House tht we are looking at all those areas.
Hon. Members will be aware that we are looking at the scope for widening the opportunities open to women in the Army. Although we do not envisage changing the long-standing policy of not employing women in direct combat roles, we believe that a significant additional number--I envisage that being well into four figures rather than three--of valuable and challenging jobs can be made available to women.
The House is also aware of our position on recruitment from the ethnic minorities. We have made clear our disappointment over the rate of applications from black
Column 390and Asian youngsters, who represent only 1.25 per cent. of our Army recruits. That is something that we must correct and we look forward to the results of the consultancy study that we have commissioned which will help us decide how to target our recruitment efforts to best effect.
In short, we do not underestimate the scale of the problem and the potential difficulties that we face, and those are being tackled now. There is much that we can do to help ourselves by identifying management practices appropriate to changed circumstances. The demographic trough will not go away, but I intend to ensure that the Army will be able to respond to it in a well balanced and sensible way.
Of course, we cannot consider the future of the British Army without taking into account developments in the international arena and, in particular, the conventional arms negotiations taking place in Vienna.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary set out the Western aims for those talks in March when he introduced the NATO proposal--in essence, a major reduction, to equal levels, in the key armoured forces essential for large-scale aggression and surprise attack. The recent NATO summit was able to extend that and, in addition, to propose reductions in aircraft, helicopters and manpower--a direct and speedy response to expressed Eastern concerns. The opportunity is there now for progress towards an agreement. The timetable suggested by President Bush is an ambitious one, and represents a challenge to which everyone, not least Mr. Gorbachev, can respond. The negotiations have got off to a good start, and there is a greater degree of agreement on objectives and goals than emerged over many years in the mutual and balanced force reduction talks. The agenda, I might add, is a Western one, and the Soviets, here as elsewhere, are responding to Western initiatives and ideas. Of course, when Mr. Gorbachev claims that he is tabling a "bold new initiative" our media are liable to take him at his word and forget that we are seeing Western proposals being played back to us.
I am convinced that the Soviet response emanated from a realisation in Moscow that NATO was not prepared to be cowed or browbeaten by threats and that the Western Alliance remained cohesive and strong whilst forging ahead in advanced defence technology. Our steadfast adherence to sensible policies is now bearing fruit in the radical developments in East-West relations.
That commitment to strong defences in NATO was confirmed at the recent summit in Brussels. NATO also confirmed the continuing need for land, sea and air-based nuclear systems in Europe, including ground-based missiles ; the rejection of a third zero in SNF negotiations in the clear statement that any negotiation should only lead to partial reductions in short range nuclear systems, and the unanimous view that negotiations on SNF should not commence until agreement on CFE has been reached and implementation is under way ; and that there should be no implementation of reductions in short-range nuclear systems until conventional force reductions agreed under CFE have been completed. It was indeed an important summit, establishing a firm basis on which the Alliance can move forward.
Contrary to gloomy prognostications from the commentators, NATO emerged with a united and forceful view of its policies and vision. I recommend to hon. Members the full and unequivocal exposition in the comprehensive concept of the realities of Alliance security